Thursday, December 06, 2007

Life stories and the illusion of fate

Some people believe in fate, that the overall course of their life was somehow ‘meant to be’. This is often a pretty inchoate belief, and it takes many forms: it may be couched in terms of god’s plan, or a vaguely Buddhist-ish sense of karma, or an unreflective notion of one’s place in ‘the great scheme of things’, or - perhaps most commonly - a sense of a purely personal destiny driven by one’s own will. More people, while not endorsing any of this, often feel that such a notion has at least some intuitive appeal.

However people might make sense (or not) of the idea, the common strand is that, looking back, they see a continuity of narrative making so much sense that it’s hard to imagine how things could have progressed otherwise (give or take smaller details). I’m talking here about people who feel this way from the personal experience of their own lives, not from anything they may have absorbed from one belief system or another – although that will obviously colour the form the belief takes.

I think I understand why people find this sort of thing plausible. I think that such attitudes are due to a few common cognitive biases.

There’s a nice parallel with the Whig interpretation of history. On this view, history (particularly British) is essentially a story of progress. Critics say – rightly – that this approach mistakenly treats the current state of affairs as the pinnacle (or part of an ongoing upward march) of achievement, and imagine that things were always going to work out this way.

A series of events – X to Y to Z – becomes seen as a causal sequence such that X was bound to lead to Y, which in turn guaranteed Z. This isn’t quite a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, as there’s a clear sense in which the earlier state of affairs did indeed cause the later state. Rather, the problem is that some factors get paid too much attention and others are ignored or misunderstood. Might P, rather than X, have caused Y? Would Y have brought about Z in the absence of Q and R? And so on.

History is viewed through the prism of what we now know, and so it’s hard to see the past other than in terms of the present. The best-documented events take a prominence in the narrative that can lead a reader to imagine that these are the causally vital ones; but in fact, quality of documentation reflects what information has been available and which events have subsequently had the most study.

And the current standards by which we judge things might not have inevitably developed and advanced with the great march of history – they just are, by definition, the ones that happened to win out.

An individual’s life is a bit like that.

It’s easier to recall and to focus on things that make sense in the light of your current situation. So you’re a mountaineer, and even as a nipper you liked climbing trees? But back then you also liked playing football and building forts – it’s just that those facts don’t ‘fit’ so smoothly. We tend to seek and interpret evidence to support our own preconceptions – and ignore or explain away things that point the ‘wrong’ way.

We see connections and patterns so easily, whether they’re real or not. And things that strike us in that way tend to stand out. Have you ever thought about someone you’d not seen in ages, only for them to then phone you? It’s the sort of thing you remember. Have you, though, ever thought about someone who didn’t then phone you? Of course you have, many thousands of times. But how many of those times readily come to mind?

We overestimate how able we are to steer the course of our own lives. Chance occurrences large and small push us one way or another without sticking in the mind or being properly grasped or even being noticed in the first place.

Certain things from our past get rehearsed more than others, and so form a more prominent part of our ‘life story’ – understood as a meaningful, directional narrative rather than a mere chain of events. Looking back, we judge that things were more predictable in advance than they really were.

Maybe you had a certain career in mind from an early age, and indeed that’s what you now do. Maybe you were sure when you first met someone that they were special, and indeed you’re now happily married. That sort of thing can give an impression of things being meant to be, but really that’s the wrong conclusion to draw. Many people have confident ambitions that fail or get replaced with others; many people feel it’s love at first sight and then never see that person again, or go off them quickly. The initial feeling becomes irrelevant, and is forgotten or disregarded.

The fact that some things do work out the way they were initially planned only shows that if determination endures, it can pay off. This doesn’t explain why, in such a case, it happened to do so.

And, when our own decisions are indeed instrumental in shaping our future, a good chunk of that process is because, once we choose a path, that becomes part of our ‘story’, part of our sense of identity. Ownership breeds retrospective endorsement: sure, we chose it because we wanted it (though perhaps not that strongly, and we may not have fully known why); but we can come to buy into it more and more simply because it was us that chose it.

Exceptions to this come in the case of decisions that work out badly, which we deftly persuade ourselves to shrug off as bad luck. Mishaps need not obscure a tale of progress.

The greatest bias is that we see our past selves through now-tinted glasses.

Our ability to empathise with others is always limited by the fact that when we imagine ourselves in their minds, we bring too much of our own minds with us. Thinking back to what we used to be like is the same: we overestimate how much our past selves were like our present selves. But a sense of continuity here eases the intelligibility of the narrative, and that’s perhaps the key thing.

We’re suckers for a good, clear story with a strong lead character. Our present affinity with our past selves (mis)casts us as having been that character right from the start. (Of course we’re still the same person, but we change more than we notice over long periods.) This is what we were always like; it was always going to work out this way.

That’s the illusion of fate.

In a way, it’s parasitic on the truth: it’s not that our lives have been journeys specifically bringing us to our current positions. Rather, our current positions – the people we are now – could only have been arrived at through the courses that our lives have actually taken. So the link between journey and destination (or at least current position) is real, but we may see the causation the wrong way round.


Matt M said...

So... what you're basically arguing is that you're a "free man".

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, you've been a wonderful audience.

Tom Freeman said...

No... I'm a number.

D R White said...

I've been thinking about this a lot in the last few hours. Do you think there is a difference between chance in fate? Nice blog.